An Introduction to Plane Spotting

An Introduction to Plane Spotting

What is plane spotting?

Plane (or aircraft) spotting is an observation hobby. Enthusiasts note details about the aircraft they observe, such as the type of craft, its registration number (also known as it’s tail or “N-number” in the United States), and any distinctive markings. The information collected is recorded via notebook & can be later added to a spreadsheet or online database.

What are some things that plane spotters notice?

  • What type of engine does it have (jet or propeller)?
  • How many engines does it have (2, 3, or 4)?
  • Where are the engines located? Are they on the fuselage or under the wing? Is there one on the tail?
  • What type of tail does it have?
  • What is the wing type?
  • What is the wing placement (high, mid, or low)?

Supplies Needed

The supplies you choose to use can vary. At the most basic, you will need a notebook & pencil to record the planes you see.

For the more advanced, you will want to invest in a decent camera for taking photos. You will likely use apps on a smartphone (such as those mentioned below) and record your sightings using a computer.

In any case, it would be wise to carry your ID, should you be questioned by airport security or police.

Airport Codes

While plane spotting could technically be done from anywhere, it will generally take place near an airport. Regardless of where you spot, you will be tracking where a plane is going &/or where it is coming from. Therefore, it will be helpful to know that there are two coding systems for identifying airfields: IATA & ICAO.

IATA is a three-character code generally used by the travel industry. You will see these codes when purchasing tickets & on luggage. The IATA code for my regional airport, the Spokane International Airport, is GEG.

ICAO is a four-character code used for flight plans, air traffic management, and weather reporting. In the United States, the IACO codes always begin with “K.” The IACO code for the Spokane International Airport is KGEG.

Plane Finder app

Plane Finder gives you information on planes in route. While I almost exclusively use this service via smartphone app, it is also available on the computer.

When using the service, you will see a map with plane icons, which move in real time. To find out more about a specific flight, click on that plan’s icon & (if available) you will be shown the following information:

  • Callsign
  • Altitude
  • Heading
  • Position
  • Squawk number
  • Speed

Live ATC app

Live ATC is a neat service that allows you to listen to your local air traffic control. Like with Plane Finder, this service can be accessed via computer or via smartphone app.

Plane Spotting Databases

Two online plane spotting databases are SpottingLog & Spot2Log. These online databases allow you to record the information on the aircraft you’ve seen as well as any photos you’ve taken. Additionally, each site integrates with social media. These are huge benefits over using traditional spreadsheets!


Plane spotting is a unique hobby that can be done alone or with others. It is an intersection of many different topics (aircraft, photography, cartography, radio communication, etc.). Participation will certainly broaden your horizon!

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